A Three-Year Cinematic Journey Across 25 Countries at the Jewish Museum

Published in Hyperallergic on May 26, 2015


Ayisha Abraham, ‘I Saw a God Dance’ (2011), video, sound, 19 min, 28 sec (courtesy the artist, all images courtesy the Jewish Museum)

Tucked away in a corner of the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum is a little movie theater that transports you far away from the artifacts of Jewish history in the surrounding galleries. In late 2013, the Jewish Museum launched an ambitious ongoing project, entitled Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video, which each month invites a curator from a different country to choose four or five videos that play continuously on the museum’s third floor. By 2016, when the project will come to a close, videos from a total of twenty-five countries will have been shown in the theater.

The country in the spotlight for the month of May is Nigeria, followed by India in June. The Nigerian curator, Jude Anogwih, has chosen an interesting array of pieces. All of the artists are Nigerian-born although some are now expatriates; Uche Okpa-Iroha and Mudi Yahaya live in Lagos, Wura-Natasha Ogunji currently lives in Austin, Texas, and Emeka Ogboh lives in Berlin. Curiously, the curator makes a point of noting where these artists are currently based but doesn’t elaborate on how living in or away from Nigeria has affected their work.

All of the Nigerian videos are explicitly political, and some more accessible than others. Mudi Yahaya’s piece, For Crown and Country is based on what one sees while switching between TV stations. We are channel surfing through Nigerian history, shifting back and forth between archival TV coverage of political, military, and civil events, and news photographs illustrated by historical quotations. The timeline of the video begins with Nigeria’s struggle for independence from England in the mid-1950s to becoming a free nation in 1960 through the following decades of political disappointment up until the mid-1990s. The video suffers from bad sound, which makes an already complicated political history lesson harder for a non-Nigerian to follow. Without knowing all of the players, it’s a little hard to grasp the full power of the work, although a wave of anger and disappointment is palpable throughout the video. Perhaps for us, viewing a complex history from far away, the relevant takeaway is the emotional impact, rather than the specific events and people in the video.


Mudi Yahaya, ‘For Crown and Country’ (2011), video, sound, 11 min (courtesy the artist)

Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s piece, Will I Still Carry Water When I’m Dead is simple in concept and totally intriguing. A group of hooded women dressed in nifty Afro-Futuristic short jumpsuits laboriously drag large jerry cans full of water through city streets. The curatorial statement mentions that these costumes are a reference to traditional Nigerian masquerade ceremonies, which women are forbidden to join. Even before learning this detail I found in the outfits an underlying tension between how modern and forward-thinking Nigeria can be and yet for many women, tradition and the lack of adequate clean water forces them to carry water for miles every day. Some of the big plastic cans are tied to women’s wrists; the most difficult women to watch are the ones who have the cans tied to their ankles. They can barely walk, the cans so full and heavy, tripping them up and holding them back from the others. They are shepherded through the streets of a busy city by a group of young men who direct traffic with slim canes. The women become increasingly exhausted as they toil. It’s an obvious but affecting statement about the eternally burdened state of African women.


Wura-Natasha Ogunji, ‘Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman?’ (2013), video, sound, 11 min, 56 sec. (courtesy the artist)

June will switch gears quite dramatically. The four videos chosen by Indian curator Nancy Adajania run the gamut of subject matter. They are not so obviously political as the Nigerian choices and they encompass imagery and subject that move beyond the nation’s borders. Production values are very high in these videos: three out of the four use advanced animation and digital manipulation techniques to tell their visual stories. The video, Political Realism, made by Gigi Scaria, explores our ability to topple all sorts of world dictators or icons. Peaking through two doorways in a surreal room, we see animated iconic sculptures of Lenin, Mao, and the World Trade Center towers — all being knocked down by construction machines. It’s a little bit goofy; bright colors abound. The movie is a little Monty Python-esque in its irreverence, surrealism, and gentle political commentary.


Gigi Scaria, ‘Political Realism’ (2009), video, sound, 3 min., 35 sec. (courtesy the artist)

The most arresting of the Indian videos is in many ways the most straightforward one. Ayisha Abraham’s I Saw a God Dance is a documentary about the most famous Indian classical dancer, little known in the West. Ram Gopal was a biracial gay man who popularized classical Indian dance in the West, partially by emphasizing his “exoticism” to titillate Western audiences. There is an implicit political undertone to this film, but frankly the footage of Gopal dancing is so mesmerizing that the political statement becomes secondary. Born in 1912 (died 2003), Gopal traveled and performed extensively throughout the world. From the interviews with surviving company members it appears that his sexuality was known and accepted. His artistry trumped everything else.

After India we will travel via video to Cuba. For the month of August, we will be in New Zealand. Each curator was given free rein to choose the pieces included in this project and, as a result, each month will be very different from the previous one. There appears to be no contiguous theme that runs throughout the series. Indeed this diverse and eclectic vision seems part of the point of this fascinating, multi-voice project organized by Jens Hoffman, the Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Public programs. Sights and Sounds will culminate in 2016 with a public conference and publication documenting the three-year journey that will serve to tie the program together. I look forward to seeing what the entire project morphs into.

Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video is a long-term series at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan). Films from Nigeria will screen through May 30 and films from India will screen during the month of June.

Tagged as: Ayisha Abraham, Gigi Scaria, Jewish Museum, Mudi Yahaya, Ram Gopal, Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video, Wura-Natasha Ogunji

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El Anatsui Goes To School

published in Hyperallergic May 21, 2015

El Anatsui’s “Womb ot Time”(2014) at The School ( all images copyright El Anatsui and courtesy  of the artist and Jack Shaiman Gallery, unless otherwise noted

KINDERHOOK, NY — The School, Jack Shainman’s splendid gallery in Kinderhook, NY, is about to blow its own roof off. The power of the El Anatsui retrospective there is palpable and deeply moving. The exhibition shows works reaching back from the 1970s to 2014. Included are works in clay, photography, drawings wood, and of course the large, changable sculptures made from discarded aluminum bands and bottle caps that have propelled Anatsui into the art world stratosphere. The inclusion of pieces made of clay and the works on paper are particularly revealing as they evidence the continuum of Anatsui’s aesthetic interests.


But first a word about the building: In this exhibition, the installation in the former Martin Van Buren High School built in 1929 is an integral part of the experience. The gallery is a wonderful architectural marriage of stunning white spaces, lit by banks of surprisingly sympathetic fluorescent lights, and rooms that echo with the ghost of the building’s past.

Installation view of El Anatsui’s “Peak Project” (1999) at The School (click to enlarge)

The architecture of the building is significant both in how the curatorial installation decisions thatwere made and to the experience of the artwork. Anatsui’s works arrive with very little installation instructions, so it is up to the discretion of the curator, who will decide how to bend and shape the pieces. They are forever mutable, and that is part of their power. Anatsui’s work is never static, always open and willing to change. At The School, the building and Jack Shaiman have become collaborators, if you will, in our perception of the works.


Detail of El Anatsui’s “Metas I” (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

An old girls bathroom on the second floor has been left, more or less in a state of elegant decay. Bits and pieces of pink paint remain on rough cement and plaster walls. Shades of grey, white, pink, and buff dominate the room. A solitary window allows natural light to flood the space. And hanging on one entire wall is a new El Anatsui piece made of old newspaper printing plates. Entitled “Metas I” (2014), the work has a new and subtle color palette. The work is mostly grey, in contrast to the very brightly colored works for which Anatsui is well known. The metal has been cut into small squares and threaded together with copper wire, the soft grey of the printing plates flecked with hits of color and bits of half recognizable words. The piece moves dimensionally, bent so that it both hugs and leaves the wall, existing as both a painting and sculpture. Deliberate open spaces in the hanging allow the pink, plaster, and cement wall to show through, becoming a part of the piece. The ways in which the wall colors and shapes relate to the artwork is both calculated and brilliant serendipity. The artwork and the wall dance together in genuine poetry.

Lady-in-Frenzy-1280There are several other rooms in the gallery where this architecture of the past is a perfect complement to Anatsui’s work. The boys bathroom (the walls were once blue, of course) houses a single tall figure fabricated out of found metal and wood. Entitled “Lady In Frenzy” (1999), this striding figure has been caught as if by the flash of a camera as she runs from the room.

El Anatsui’s “Lady in Frenzy” (1999) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

There is no disconnect here between the pieces installed in these un-renovated rooms and those installed in the pristine cool white spaces of the rest of the building. It all works. In the contemporary spaces, the ceramic and carved wood pieces create a different type of contrast with their surroundings.


Detail of “Open(ing) Market” (2004), a 1,755 piece installation. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Anatsui’s newest pieces in the exhibition show him at a point of transcendence in his use of both the materials and ideas that have been a hallmark of his mature work. The aluminum and zinc newspaper printing plates have a dulled sheen to them. The metal has been fashioned into bent squares about two inches in size. This bent squares and their very subtle silver-grey allow light to define the sculptural forms of the Meta pieces more than in past work. They feel somewhat related to minimalist painting, the square patterning of the metal feels more regularly rhythmic than some of the earlier works. They are as much painting as sculpture. All of the pieces in the Metas series exhibit this highly refined and delicate sense of form and light. At the same time the very nature of their fabrication by hand and the eccentricity of the materials (found metal and copper wire) ties these pieces both to Anatsui’s entire body of work, but also to the traditions of materiality and handwork that tie him to his artistic roots in Africa.


El Anatsui’s “Ascension” (2014), left, and “Dissolving Dreams” (2014), both found aluminum and copper wire. (photo courtesy Jack Shaiman Gallery)

In the new pieces in which Anatsui is using color and shiny metal, similar to his past works, the visual narrative feels fresh and new. “Ascension” (2014) and “Dissolving Dreams” (2014) hanging in the same room use gold and silver as their primary colors. There is a pleasingly sharp difference between the brilliance of the silver and the duller sheen of the gold. Using contrasting toned aluminum bands, Anatsui snakes the color through, creating deliberate, abstracted narratives.

Peak-Project-1280El Anatsui’s “Stressed World” (2011)

As always with Anatsui’s work, these pieces undulate on the wall, creating shadows, depth, and dimensionality that are always arresting. In addition to their visual beauty there is a pulse, a movement to Anatsui’s work. They feel very alive. The spaces between the art and the wall, the spaces between the art and the viewer, the floor, the ceiling are as important as the art itself. His willingness and desire to allow the curators and the spaces to to affect change to his artwork makes for passionate spatial relationships. The very bottom of “Stressed World” (2011) ever so gently brushes the floor, just a whisper of contact — it’s a casually graceful gesture that acknowledges the possibility of blurring the boundaries between art and the space it inhabits.

el-anatsui-1977-BIGOne of the strengths of this show is that includes so many early and rarely seen pieces. Carved figurative works from the 1980s, like “Devotees”(1987)and “Group Photo”(1987) are reminders of where El Anatsui was artistically 30 years ago and adds depth to our understanding of the evolution of his work. These two carved wood pieces each consist of a group of abbreviated figures — each is an abstracted shape that reads as a torso and a second one that reads as a head.

A view of El Anatsui’s “Chambers of Memory” (1977) at The School (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

The ten individual figures that make up the piece “Devotees” (1987) are bunched tightly together, their bulbous heads morphing into long thick necks that rest on top of “shoulders.” Elegantly shaped wooden forms with very little detail, these are figures distilled to their visual essence. Facing in different directions, they all share eyes that have a vacant stare and slack mouths. Anatsui’s comment, perhaps, on those who are unquestioning followers of a religion or political movement.


El Anatsui, “Devotees” (1987) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Group Photo” (1987) is a much larger group of figures, thirty-five in total. They are more varied and detailed in surface carving, and each is individualized, with facial expressions and carving on the torsos that identify them as the opposite of the “devotees.” Each is completely individual, and massed altogether they form a family or clan. The point is that although they are many, they never lose their identity in the group. In this exhibition the gallery has chosen, with the artist’s permission, to group them in niches that rise high up onto a stark white wall in the white-box section of the building.

unnamed-21280Both “Devotees” and “Group Photo” establish Anatsui’s early interest in the power of repetition and its relationship to the whole. The impressive continuum of Anatsui’s development is on full display, from a rhythmic cadence of wooden figures in the 1980s, to the increasingly more ambitious projects made of multi-colored found metal in the 2000s, to the gorgeous tableau of silver-grey printing plates of his recent work.

Detail of El Anatsui, “Group Photo” (1987) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It is the marriage of rhythm, repetition, and constant evolution that informs not only individual pieces, but the body of Anatsui’s work as a whole.


“Commercial Avenue” (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Locals refer to “The School,” Jack Shainman’s 30,000 square foot gallery space as “The Museum.” After visiting the El Anatsui retrospective, I can fully understand why. The artworks and the space that seems to cradle and nurture them combine to delight the eye and challenge us in a way most unusual for a more conventional gallery space.

El Anatsui: Five Decades at the Jack Shainman’s The School (25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, NY) continues until September 26.

Tagged as: El Anatsui, Jack Shainman Gallery, The School, Melissa Stern

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At Martín Ramírez Opening, A Defense of Immigrant’s Rights and Outsider Art

March 27, 2015 in Hyperallergic


 Martín Ramírez,”Untitled (Tunnel with Cars and Buses)” (1954), reproduced as one of five new ‘Forever’ Stamps by the United States Postal Service (© 2015 USPS) (click to enlarge)

Blue-chip outsider artist Martín Ramírez was memorialized this past Thursday evening in Chelsea with the unveiling of a United States postage stamp. The depression-era Mexican immigrant, who was institutionalized for decades with symptoms of acute schizophrenia, created a series of stunning works on paper now considered among the most important of this genre, and currently on view at the Ricco Maresca Gallery. The event was a moving — and, I would bet, by far the most eclectic — United States Postal Service–sponsored function in recent times.

Galleon-on-Water-_hiressm                                          Martin Ramirez, “Untitled (Galleon on Water)” (c. 1960–63), gouache, colored pencil, and graphite on pieced paper, 33 x 24 in (all images courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

A mixed marriage of a hipster gallery opening and a formal day-of-issue unveiling of a new postage stamp, the evening was a smorgasbord of ultra-nerdy stamp collectors, post office bureaucrats, the late artist’s heirs, and the crème de la crème of outsider art collectors, curators, and art critics. Actor John Turturro, himself a collector, rubbed shoulders with a fellow clutching his copy of the American Philatelist, freshly autographed by New York’s Post Master General. Ramirez’s work, now valued in the hundreds of thousands, hung aside a U.S. Postal Service concession stand selling the 49-cent Ramirez stamp.

New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz was the genial master of ceremonies. Charismatic and articulate, and by turns gracious and irreverent, Saltz spoke not only about the artist, but of the fallacy of calling the now mainstream work “outsider art.” Saltz’s wife, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, made a cameo appearance. The chief financial officer of the US Postal Service, an amiable fish out of water in fashionable Chelsea, took on the obligatory official duties of unveiling the new stamps.

Then Brooke Davis Anderson took the podium. Anderson, who is the former Deputy Director of Curatorial Planning at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and current head of Prospect New Orleans, the citywide contemporary art Biennale, was an early and important promoter of the work of Martin Ramírez and other outsider artists. At the event, Anderson led off with a passionate and partisan plea for the value of small museums in America — museums that specialize in the depth of a subject, rather than the breadth of the art world. The International Center for Photography (ICP), the American Folk Art Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem were a few of the worthy New York institutions that Anderson cited that “make a difference.”


Anderson then recounted Ramírez’s life, fashioning it into an impassioned political talk about immigration and race in America: “We are honoring someone from the working poor on a US Postal stamp. By honoring Ramírez, we are celebrating the disenfranchised in this society so distracted by the 1%.” She continued, “Martin Ramírez was a man who crossed borders solely to provide for his family. Like so many men and women around the world and on our borders did then and do now. We are honoring immigrant workers on a US postage stamp at a time when this continues to be a hotly debated issue.”


Joseph Corbett of the US Postal Service at Ricco Maresca Gallery

Ambassador Sandra Fuentes-Berain, Counsel General from Mexico continued. She spoke movingly of a Mexican migrant worker who had been shot last week in upstate New York because he did not understand what the police were yelling at him. She cited the 35 million Mexicans who live in the United States who are here seeking a better life, as generations of immigrants have done for centuries. “They are here,” she said, “not to take jobs from Americans but to do the jobs Americans don’t want to do.”

Geo-politics, superb, and important outsider art, the guys from the Post Office, and their groupie stamp collectors — how often do we get to mix with great US art critics and folk art curators and our most committed philatelists? More than 50 years after his death in 1963, Martin Ramírez has left his stamp on the New York art scene.


Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Stag on Mound with Fireworks)” (c. 1952–53), graphite, tempera and crayon on paper, 32 x 19 1/2 in; 81.3 x 49.3 cm (click to enlarge)


Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Courtyard with Man and Animals)” (c. 1950-55), graphite, tempera and crayon on paper, 47 1/2 x 36 in


Martín Ramírez, “Untitled (Horse and Rider)” (c. 1950), colored pencil, crayon, and collage on paper, 37 x 17 1/2 in
Martín Ramírez: Forever continues at Ricco Maresca through May 2.

Tagged as: Martín Ramírez, Ricco Maresca, US Postal Service

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Out of This World, Domestic Objects Transcend

  • by Melissa Stern on March 24, 2015
  •  Gupta_FpountainSubodh Gupta, “This is not a fountain” (2011), old aluminium utensils, water, painted brass taps, PVC pipes, motor (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

New York is a big art city, with big art fairs, big museums, and lots of big concept art. There are exhibitions that fill museums with objects, like Maurizio Cattelan’s exhibition All at the Guggenheim Museum in 2011, and exhibitions that fill spaces with big concepts, like Marina Abramović’s 2010 exhibition at MoMA (The Artist Is Present). Some are more successful than others.

At Hauser & Wirth, Subodh Gupta has endeavored to pull off both, offering us compelling objects and a high concept. The title of the show, Seven Billion Light Years, refers both to the number of people presently alive on earth and to the idea of a universe of unfathomable size, time, and distance. Rarely does such a big concept play out in a gallery with the consistent clarity of Gupta’s show.


Subodh Gupta, “Aam,” (2015), painted bronze mangoes, found table (click to enlarge)

The exhibition dances between the enormity of India, and by extension the world, and the smallest of things that root Gupta to the earth. The show has a very deliberate trajectory, a visual and conceptual narrative that carries you from earth to sky. Gupta makes beautiful use of materials and themes focused on both his personal and cultural history. Many of the works use the common, cheap cooking vessels and tools found throughout India, where Gupta was born and raised, reminding the artist and us that food, water, and a home are the basic elements of life. Mangos and potatoes, two staples of the Indian diet, for both the rich and poor, are cast in bronze. These works are metaphorically temporal and permanent: the real food may rot, but the bronze endures.

Gupta_Fountain_DetailSubodh Gupta, “This is not a fountain” (2011), detail

Entering the first gallery we see an enormous sculpture made of piles upon piles of worn cooking implements: aluminum pots, teakettles, and blackened pans typical of Indian households all jumbled together in a monumental pile that measures almost 26 feet long and ten feet high. Water spigots incongruously stick up in random places and a continuous flow of water drains mysteriously into the pile. The piece, entitled “This is Not a Fountain” slyly refers to Magritte’s infamous painting “The Treachery of Images” and its tagline “Ceci, n’est pas une pipe” (“This is Not a Pipe”). Art is not reality, even art of the most pedestrian of objects. But of course, at the same time, the sculpture is a fountain and the gentle gurgling of water delights the ear, even as the eye wanders over what some might consider a giant pile of recyclables and in India the essentials of home life.


Subodh Gupta, “Seven Billion Light Years V” (2014), oil on canvas, found utensil, resin (click to enlarge)

Throughout the exhibition Gupta makes use of these common household objects, stringing them into a massive ten-foot long necklace, ironically called “Pearl,” or burying them in the ground in a work entitled “Pure,” in which the artist performed a ritualistic piece with the members of a small agricultural village in India. In these works, there is an interesting dialectic between the individual and the group — one pot and many pots that can be taken at face value or interpreted on other philosophical or political levels. There are those, for instance, who would see this entire show as a statement about class and economics in India. With Gupta’s work, there are multiple readings, and he leaves it up to the viewers to go in the direction that their own orientation takes them.


Subodh Gupta, “Pure (I)” (1999—2014), mixed media

As one moves toward the end of the exhibition, the earth is left behind with a room filled with four giant canvases entitled, “Seven Billion Light Years l, ll, lll, V.” They are based on a deceptively simple idea. Each painting consists of a beaten-up cooking vessel affixed to a huge (89 x 95 inches) canvas on which the artist has reproduced that same vessel, but blown up to stellar proportions. The vessels now look like planets, driving home the sense of duality that runs throughout this exhibition. Gupta captures the inextricable connection between the common and the universal, the earthbound and the celestial. The small moments beget the universal ones. The life of a lowly cooking pot contains the essence of the world.


Installation view of ‘Subodh Gupta: Seven Billion Light Years’ (click to enlarge)

It is in the three pieces entitled “Orange Thing,” “Untitled,” and “Hamid Ka Chimta” that Gupta uses the objects in a truly transcendent way. Three huge abstract sculptures, comprised of hundreds of brass, copper, and steel tongs fill one gallery space. They are very 1960s, mod, cool. Like supernovas, they shimmer in the light. The copper and brass pieces bend and move the light, from brilliant and reflective to a dark burnished interior. In contrast, the steel sculpture seems to suck the light into its rusted and dark interior.


Subodh Gupta, “Seven Billion Light Years” (2014–2015), film, 2 minutes (click to enlarge)

The journey concludes with a gleeful two-minute video about the life of a roti. We see the dough slapped down onto a convex iron cook top. The roti is then tossed in the air and we watch it travel in slow motion across the sky, past birds, past clouds and trees. The eye follows each delicate movement of the bread on the breeze as it floats downward back onto the cook top. Such a simple idea, and yet so lovely, lyrical, and gentle, the video synthesizes Gupta’s central themes: earth and universe, the individual and the group.



Subodh Gupta-“Orange Thing” detail (2014) steel, copper tongs, plastic

Subodh Gupta: Seven Billion Light Years continues at Hauser & Wirth (511 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 25.


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7 Contemporary Takes on Marsden Hartley

in Hyperallergic. February 20, 2015


Marsden Hartley, “Green and Purple Grapes in a Basket” (1928)

OK, full disclosure: I have never been a huge Marsden Hartley fan. I know that Hartley is “important” in modernist art history, but there’s an air of heaviness to his work that simply never moved me. The color and composition have always felt solid and earthbound — just not my cup of tea — although I am appreciative of how important he has been to many artists over the decades. As one of the many ex-pat artists who traveled to Europe in the teens and twenties, Hartley became part of Gertrude Stein’s circle of writers and painters. From there, he traveled to Germany, where I have always thought he probably felt more comfortable with the solid paintings of Franz Marc and German Expressionism than with the Parisian sensibility. He returned to the States permanently in 1930, bringing with him his European aesthetic experiences, which in turn influenced the developing American Modernist painting movement.

So it was with great curiosity that I read of the current show at Driscoll Babcock Gallery, The Earth Is All I Know of Wonder: Contemporary Responses to Hartley, where contemporary artists like Katherine Bradford and David Humphrey riff on Hartley’s paintings. Now THAT piqued my interest. The exhibition is in conjunction with a much larger show, Art Is Long, Life is Short: Marsden Hartley and Charles Kuntz in Aix- en-Provence, that fills most of Driscoll Babcock’s spacious Chelsea digs. This is an extensive exhibition that arrived in New York from the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greensville, South Carolina. It seeks to present and explore the relationship between the work of Hartley and Kuntz, who both lived and worked in Aix at the same time. A worthy show, not a mind blower, but for those who are Hartley fans one can see some worthwhile works that are not often shown publicly.


Charles Philip Kuntz, “Mont St. Victoire in Clouds” (no date given)

The Kuntz paintings are nice in an academic way: safe, polite, classic landscapes of Southern France from a bygone era. Kuntz died at age 30, so there is no knowing how his work might have developed from these early paintings. However, there is one painting that perhaps gives a hint of where he might have gone. It stands out in striking contrast to everything else in the show. “Mont St. Victoire In Clouds” is an almost psychedelic swirl of color and form with a rich surface that thrusts right in your face. It’s beautiful, unfettered by classicism, and very “Modernist” — radically different from the rest of Kuntz’s work. Painted towards the end of his life, the work is a harbinger of where he was heading.

The group show inspired by Hartley’s works is in a small room, and consists of seven painters and eight moderately sized paintings. According to the show’s curator, each artist was offered a preview of the Hartley and Kuntz exhibition and asked to create a response painting specific to a Hartley piece. As stated in the press release, the chosen artists — Katherine Bradford, Jennifer Coates, Holly Coulis, Rachael Gorchov, David Humphrey, Danielle Orchard, and Robin F. Williams — were invited because their work already reflected an interest in or influence of Hartley. The resulting pieces are quite interesting. Each artist has indeed reflected thoughtfully on some aspect of Hartley’s work, yet like handwriting, each is indisputably the work of its creator.


David Humphrey, “Hartley’s Lilies” (2014)

I’m particularly drawn to David Humphrey’s piece “Hartley’s Lilies,” a modest collage and painting that seamlessly mashes Hartley’s bluntly sexualized lily painting (see “Calla Lilies in a Vase” in the main show) with Humphrey’s loose and wry sensibility. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s a painting that is both beautiful and silly — a perfect response to Hartley.


Danielle Orchard, “Picnic in Aix 1″ (2015)

Danielle Orchard’s two paintings have stylistic echoes of Hartley but seem more intent on making a comment on his possible relationship with Kuntz. In both works, two male figures lay supine in an undefined but colorful landscape. Their relationship is ambiguous, but suggestive. The two paintings, of similar gesture but different coloration, pose a quiet comment on Hartley’s inner life. It has long been posited that Hartley was a closeted gay man. Reading between the lines about his relationship with Kuntz, one could suppose that there might have been a deeper connection between the two.

This is a small but intriguing and rich show. Emphasis on the “small.” I left wishing that it had been bigger. Tracing the influence of Hartley and where his modernist sensibility would lead to in the work of contemporary artists is a good starting concept. But there could have been so much more, both in quantity and in commentary on Hartley and his influential life.


Jennifer Coates, “Houseplant” (2014)


Katherine Bradford, “Liner Cloud Berg” (2014)

The Earth Is All I Know of Wonder: Contemporary Responses to Hartley and  Art Is Long, Life is Short: Marsden Hartley and Charles Kunz in Aix- en-Provence continue at Driscoll Babcock Galleries (525 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 21. 

Tagged as: Charles Kuntz, David Humphrey, Driscoll Babcock, Greenville County Museum of Art, Holly Coulis, Jennifer Coates, Katherine Bradford, Marsden Hartley, Rachael Gorchov, Robin F. Williams


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10 Stellar Culture Documentaries That the Oscars Snubbed

February 19, 2015 in Hyperallergic

It’s movie awards season again. That breathless time of year that starts with the Golden Globes and climaxes with the Oscars, at which point we are all pretty tired of the hoo-ha and ready to move on. That repeated cackle of “who are you wearing,” the sight of brilliant artists teetering down red carpets, and media stories concocted by publicists all wear thin after a while. We adore movies, and of course we secretly love some of the silliness; it’s part of our culture to cheerfully obsess with trivia while the world implodes.

All of these award shows have an obligatory documentary film prize that often, though not always, goes to a film that has had serious impact: Taxi to the Dark Side, The Thin Blue Line, Harlan County USA, Born Into Brothels, to name just a few. They are magnificent and brave films that have sought to change our way of looking at the world. And then of course there’s the occasional penguin film …

As a dedicated doc-watcher, as well as a documentary screener/curator for an international film festival for the past five years, I’ve found a few documentaries related to art and culture that have really stuck with me over the years.

Here is my roundup, not only of films from the last year but of the past decade. These are films you may have missed in theaters, never saw because they got a one-week showing in NYC and LA and nowhere else, or that were simply too far below the radar.

In absolutely no hierarchical order, here we go:

ARTWARAmmarsmallStill from ‘Art War’
Art War (2014)

This is one of the most current films on my list, and one that is still making the festival circuit in Europe. Director Marco Wilms and crew document the work of passionate Egyptian street artists, both visual and performance artists, whose work made a difference during the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2010. From graffiti to performance art, we see a class of young, educated activists that rarely make an appearance in Western media. The film will soon be released on DVD and streaming.


East Side Story poster

East Side Story (1997)
A surprising and affectionate look at one of the oddest film legacies of the Cold War era. Evidently, Soviet filmmakers were deeply enamored of big Hollywood musicals. Think Busby Berkeley on tractors and close replicas of Hollywood blockbusters, except that everyone is singing about the glories of the Socialist State. Perfectly coiffed peasant girls and big burly factory workers dance and sing in perfect unison, extolling the joy of working towards a unified Communist world. Interspersed with interviews with the films’ participants and fans, this movie has far more depth than the subject matter at first suggests. The lavish production values, fully orchestrated musical numbers, and single-minded propaganda content make for a wonderfully strange mash-up.



The Yes Men Fix the World poster
The Yes Men Fix the World’(2009)
A must-see for all political activists and performance artists. The Yes Men are a duo of “culture hackers,” with a network of supporters around the globe who have pranked some of the world’s largest corporations and political organizations. Addressing what they see as hypocrisy and wrongdoing by the corporate world, armed with cheap suits, and a lot of chutzpah the Yes Men have pulled off some of the most daring and audacious political theater imaginable.the-green-wave-film‘The Green Wave’  poster

The Green Wave (2010)

A documentary film that combines live-action footage caught on cell phones, animation, Twitter messages, and interviews that documents the attempt to bring real social change to Iran during the “Green Revolution,” one of the first revolutions fueled in part by social media. This film will come to be seen as a critical historical document of its era. It’s a documentary that feels like a thriller. The pace is fast and urgent, much like the lives of the young people on the streets of Tehran.

The Green Wave, film trailer



‘Tomorrow We Disappear’ (image courtesy Joshua Cogan Photography)


‘Tomorrow We Disappear’  (image courtesy Joshua Cogan Photography)

Tomorrow We Disappear (2014)

For over fifty years, the Kathputli Colony in New Delhi, India has been home to 2,800 artist families. Generations of magicians, acrobats, puppeteers, painters, and musicians have lived in this slum, passing on their craft to generation upon generation of artists. In 2009, in what appears to be a classic real estate grab, the New Delhi government sold the land to a group of foreign investors intent upon building Delhi’s tallest skyscraper. Filmmakers Adam Weber and Jimmy Goldblum have documented the last days of this vibrant community in an incredibly beautiful and sensitive film. Though the footage is at times stunningly beautiful, this is not a romanticized vision of life in an Indian slum. The people are brutally poor, and life is hard. But the movie focuses on their artistic ancient traditions. Once communities like this disappear, their craft and customs will be utterly lost. A plea to the world to help preserve the community and its heritage, the film follows the lives of three of the performers, a magician, an acrobat and a puppeteer, and chronicles their lives.
02_Staff_Benda_Blili_by_Guillaume_ARICIQUE_loresStaff Banda Billi (2010)

A music documentary of the most unusual band imaginable. Comprised of five quadriplegic homeless street musicians from Kinshasa, Congo, a group forms to make music — and a little money to survive — in a country without safety nets or infrastructure for the disabled. This band went from literally nothing to playing giant venues throughout Europe, playing kick-ass hard and fast Afro-pop that refuses pity. Using homemade rock and roll instruments, living on the streets, and enduring incredible hardship, the band gains notoriety and faces some classic band problems. Great music and a great story make this a movie that will stay with you long after it’s over.


poster‘Marwencol’ poster

Marwencol (2010)

This film documents the life of Mark Hogancamp, a self-taught artist living near Kingston, NY. After a near-fatal beating in a bar, a profound brain injury, and the loss of his veteran health benefits for rehabilitation, Hogancamp seeks to rebuild his life by recreating a fantasy World War Two Belgian town called Marwencol on 1/6 of its scale. Populating Marwencol with customized GI Joe and barbie dolls, Hogancamp acts out and photographs the lives of his miniature populace. Yes, this story is as strange and even stranger than it sounds, with a few twists and turns that make for a very dramatic and affecting movie.

2Still from ‘Marwencol’ (2010)


‘Birth of the Living Dead’ poster

Birth of the Living Dead (2012)

Night of the Living Dead was a film that single handedly and permanently changed what had been a hackneyed and formulaic genre: the horror film. Released in 1968, it was also the first horror film whose hero and lead was a black man. Filmed and released during a horrifying time in American history — the onslaught of Vietnam and the violence of American cities consumed by race riots, the assassination of leaders — this film eerily reflects a sense of our nation gone mad. Its connection to the political currents of 1968 remains shocking to this day. Birth of the Living Dead documents the genesis and making of this seminal film, weaving it seamlessly into its late-sixties origins. There’s the added bonus of an extensive interview with a most delightful George Romero (the director of the 1968 film) as well as hilarious details of how this film was made on a shoestring in suburban Pittsburgh, with many from the local community volunteering to portray the first flesh-eating zombies of the modern era.

PastedGraphic-2-1Still from ‘Birth of the Living Dead’ (2013)


johnson10-9-1How to Draw a Bunny(courtesy Ray Johnson Estate)

How to Draw a Bunny ( 2002)
A heartbreakingly beautiful documentary about Ray Johnson, one of the most original and mysterious artists of the 20th century. Johnson, who committed suicide in 1995, created a unique visual universe, reaching out to and teasing the art world through “mail art” and the “New York Correspondence School,” both Johnson’s inventions. Blurring the lines between life and performance, reality and invention, Ray Johnson left the world, his friends, and admirers with more questions than he ever cared to answer. The film attempts gently to unravel a little of this mystery, but seeks mostly to present and celebrate an artist whose work influenced generations to follow. Killer drum score by Max Roach.

red-chapel-640The Red Chapel ( poster)

The Red Chapel (2009)
Without a doubt one of the strangest documentary films I have ever seen. By turns hilarious and wrenching, this is the story of a fake Danish guerilla theater group called Red Chapel — two Korean-born, Danish adoptees and their director who somehow get the idea that they will go to North Korea to perform for the Great Leader. Their “comedy” act is subversive and political, and their goal is to have the youth chorus of North Korea perform the Oasis song “Wonderwall” in English for the Great Leader. One of the actors has spastic paralysis; had he been born in North Korea he would have been locked away for life in a “home,” or killed. The troupe is fêted and toured around North Korea, as the Danish director Mads Brugger attempts to document their ultimately subversive mission. The young disabled man, who is smart and very funny, is treated as both a returning hero and a freak. To reveal any more would be to spoil your experience of this wonderfully odd and brilliant movie.

Tagged as: Adam Weber, Art War, Birth of the Living Dead, East Side Story, George Romero, How to Draw a Bunny, Jimmy Goldblum, Mads Brugger, Marco Wilms, Marwencol, Ray Johnson, Staff Banda Billi, The Green Wave, The Red Chapel, The Yes Men Fix the World, Tomorrow We Disappear


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Exploring Life’s Dead Ends on Repeat

November 20, 2014 in Hyperallergic


Installation view of Pierre St-Jacques’ ‘The Exploration of Dead Ends’ at Station Independent Projects (all images courtesy the artist)

I have always contended that video art is the hardest to make, in part because it’s the easiest. In our digital world, anyone can pick up their phone or (gasp) a camera and produce “video art.” The trick is to make it compelling and to use the medium in a way that transcends clichés.

Station Independent Projects, a sliver of space on the Lower East Side, is currently presenting a video piece by Pierre St-Jacques that not only transcends the medium’s clichés, but is a work of such intense longing and beauty that stepping back out onto the hubbub of Suffolk Street is a shock.



Installation view of Pierre St-Jacques’ ‘The Exploration of Dead Ends’ at Station Independent Projects (click to enlarge)

The piece, titled “The Exploration of Dead Ends” (2012–14), is presented on six video monitors of different sizes that are puzzled together into a single unit. The narrative flows throughout, around, and between the six screens in a fluid poetic movement that seems effortless, belying the hours of time in the editing room that it must have taken to make the piece so seamless.

The video is on a continuous loop, and viewers witness over and over again the journey of a middle-aged man name William as he moves through both his real and inner lives. The loop reinforces the notion that the psychological patterns we inhabit are inescapable and inevitable. William relives his “dead ends” throughout eternity, as if trapped in a dream that will not end.

This is a piece about our deep longing to connect. We share William’s joys, frustrations, and, in one harrowing scene of emasculation, his existential loneliness — and perhaps our own.

There are some very heavy themes running thorough this piece, as well moments of great beauty and quiet joy — the light on a leaf, the fleeting smile on a loved one’s face. These are the glimmers of hope that keep William and perhaps the rest of us going in lives that the artist sees as, well, “dead ends.”


Still from “The Exploration of Dead Ends” by Pierre St-Jacques

The multiple points of view presented on the six screens give viewers the sense of being just as fully immersed in every moment of the story as William is. He greets a woman on one screen, we see her eyes glance at him on another, another screen shows the same greeting from a different angle, we also get a closeup on her lips, a view of the room around them, and so on. Then suddenly the next image flows over all of the screens, uniting the narrative, the moment, and our understanding of how the brain processes disparate experiences simultaneously. The moment sparks an epiphany of connection, which is lost again as the loop continues.

This piece is a very potent, both visually and psychologically. Ask for a chair and sit and watch the work. I found it mesmerizing and layered, each viewing revealing more nuance. The rest of the show consists of stills from the video. Several of the larger photos are quite striking on their own. There is a book of the artist’s storyboards that, for those who are interested, details the painstaking process of putting a piece like this together.


Installation view of Pierre St-Jacques’ ‘The Exploration of Dead Ends’ at Station Independent Projects

But the stars of this show are William and his creator. The fleeting encounter with this artistic dream may leave you sad, enlightened, or with a sense of self-recognition.  St-Jacques’s work is among the best in its challenging medium, offering a radical answer to one of the central questions of our time: what’s on TV?

The Exploration of Dead Ends continues at Station Independent Projects (164 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 14.

st-jacques-station-independent-2 Installation view of Pierre St-Jacques’ ‘The Exploration of Dead Ends’ at Station Independent Projects


Tagged as: Lower East Side, Pierre St-Jacques, Station Independent Projects, video art

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Reading a Drawing Without Labels

published Nov. 12,2014  in Hyperallergic

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Dan Miller “Untitled (blue ‘ON’ and yellow with graphite)” (2011), acrylic and graphite on paper (all images courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery)

Dan Miller has created some of the most glorious work that I’ve seen in a long time. His current show at Ricco Maresca Gallery is a collection of works on paper that draw you in, deep into their rich and layered surfaces. Strong, intense directional markings vie with big loopy “faux” writing. Occasionally a word or letter pops out. In the painting “Untitled (peach and gray with graphite)” the word “lied” shines out from the left side. This one word sets an entire narrative into motion. Who lied? What lied? Are paintings lies? The rest of the work is a tantalizing tangle of line and color. I’m drawn in, trying to find more words; the shapes tease. Maybe it’s a word, maybe it’s a painting of a word, maybe a line and nothing more.

DM 38_Dan Miller_2014_smalljpg Dan Miller, “Untitled (Lumber)” (2014), typewritten text on paper, 11″x30″

These are masterful works that do what I think every artist hopes to achieve. That is, each is a perfectly contained world, with an intense and consistent inner logic. It’s an idiosyncratic and personal logic, but it holds throughout all of the works in the show. The pieces have structure and layer upon layer of marks to “read.” The artist has created a world that challenges us to crack the code and enter. One can read them as simply beautifully composed abstract paintings or as work that seeks to comment on issues of format and narrative.

The quality of mark upon paper varies from those the width of a hair to big sloshy stokes of paint. There is tension and drama between these marks, which give the paintings and drawings a great sense of energy. Miller’s color tends to be cool — silver blues, graphite and grey, punctuated with an occasional splash of yellow or green.

Most of us who write about, think and talk about art try to connect the work or the artist with precedents in art history or with the artist’s contemporary peers. We seek a construct, a hook to hang the art on, as a way of understanding it. This reflex fulfills a human need to categorize, to put art into context, to compare and contrast, and somehow enrich the work with its off-canvas back-story.

Occasionally — and delightfully — one finds an artist whose work is so original, so fresh, and so self-contained as to defy easy classification or precedent.

DM 52_Dan Miller_2011_smallDan Miller, “Untitled (light pink ‘R’ and white on black)” (2011), acrylic on paper, 40″x50.5″

So here’s the part I haven’t mentioned yet. Dan Miller is on the spectrum of autism and lives with few verbal communication skills. He makes work that is truly its own world, his artwork is his primary form of self-expression. I mention this fact last because so often we need to “label” in order to understand a work of art. Miller’s work deserves to be appreciated and understood on its own terms rather than through a lens.

Dan MillersmallInstallation view of Creative Growth: Dan Miller exhibition at Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York

So what do we do when an artist is working in a sealed universe of his or her own making, one with no art history, and no hook with which to contextualize or prejudge the work? Enjoy the fresh voice of a talent that transcends language, back-story, or label. Look. Closely. And leave it at that.

Creative Growth, Dan Miller is presented at Ricco Maresca Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 3rd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan), in conjunction with Creative Growth, Oakland, CA, until December 6.

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Drawing the Face of the War Machine

October 17, 2014 in Hyperallergic


 Xanti Schawinsky, “The Aviator (Faces of War)” (1942), mixed media, watercolor and black pen on paper, 28 7/8 x 21 inches (73.4 X 53.4 cm) (all works courtesy of and copyright the Xanti Schawinsky Estate, unless otherwise noted)

The Drawing Center has mounted a strange and surreal show of drawings by Xanti Schawinsky, an underrated artist whose 50-plus-year career spanned the 1920s to the late ’70s. Celebrating a peripatetic artist who worked in photography, avant-garde theater, graphic design, jazz, painting, and product design, this show presents a small but concentrated portion of of Schawinsky’s oeuvre.

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A view of two works, “The Home Guard (Faces of War)” (1942) and “The General (Faces of War)” (1942), in The Drawing Center exhibition.

Schawinsky lived a life that could have been a film script. Here’s the synopsis: Born in 1904, he was the child of Polish Jews, raised in Switzerland. In 1924, he moved to Germany and became a beloved and vital member of the Bauhaus, working mostly in theater, graphic design, and jazz. He fled pre-war Germany to Italy where he became an important graphic and advertising artist. He immigrated to the United States in 1936, settling at Black Mountain College along with Bauhaus colleagues Josef and Anni Albers. He taught there for two years and then hit New York City for a career in commercial art and to pursue his passion for painting amidst a close-knit European expat community. Schawinsky revisited his experimental work in theater, photography, and drawing, while teaching at various universities in NYC. He eventually moved back to Italy, where he lived until his death in 1979. His was a life that spanned much of the 20th century.


Xanti Schawinsky, “Jewelry Head” (1941–44) from the Head Drawings series, graphite on paper, 30 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches (77.5 X 57.2 cm), Norman Waitt Jr. Collection

The show, entitled Head Drawings and Faces of War, juxtaposes two very different bodies of work, each portraying the same object: the human head. The Head Drawings, pencil on plain paper, are very formal, beautifully rendered exercises in composition. In each, Schawinsky has taken a collection of objects — jewelry, plants, rope, for example — and assembled the disparate parts into drawings of the human head. It’s a bit like the old art school assignment to take an object and draw it 50 ways. In one, Schawinsky creates the most minimal and modern of heads, constructed out of the building blocks, geometric planes, cones, and orbs. In another, a woman’s hand dripping with Baroque jewelry is outstretched in empty space. Several of the ornate pendants hanging off of her laden hand create a woman’s face. These do not appear to be portraits of anyone. They are in fact cool, almost academic. Inventive and clever, they are admirable displays of old-fashioned draftsmanship.XS21

 Xanti Schawinsky, “The Warrior (Faces of War)” (1942), mixed media, watercolor and black pen on paper, 29 x 21 3/8 inches (73.7 X 54.2 cm) (All works courtesy of and copyright the Xanti Schawinsky Estate, unless otherwise noted)

However, what makes them, and the exhibition, so powerful is the juxtaposition of these “cool” heads with the Faces of War, which “face” them in the elegant Drawing Center installation.

The Faces of War are also perfectly rendered drawings, although of a very different “head.” These heads, floating in gently gradient fields of color, are constructed out of the detritus of war. Like science fiction visions of the future they each stand alone, as if in a series of advertisements, each showing off “this year’s model.” One such head rolls through a rosy pink field, on tank treads, its eyes and nose are guns trained to shoot. Another in the form of a parachute floats in the air — a deadly machine with eyes locked and loaded. The gentle calm and sublime color selection of the backgrounds— indigo, melting into yellow, blue gracefully changing to orange — belies the brutal nature of the machine like “war” heads. Schwinsky’s strict Bauhaus graphic design training is most evident here. The subject matter is bizarre, surreal, and political; the melding of death machine into the human form and intellect. But the work’s design mastery renders them oddly all the more terrifying. It’s the holding back, the control, the sense of purpose that fills these drawings with such dread.


Xanti Schawinsky, “Architectural Design” (1945), mixed media, watercolor and black pen on paper, 20 3/4 x 28 7/8 inches (52.7 X 73.4 cm)

The Drawing Center’s juxtaposition of these two bodies of work captures the heightened sense of anxiety, creative tension, and deeper psychology that haunts Schawinsky’s noncommercial work. Although he left Europe before the outbreak of WWll, the experience observed from afar was seared into his artistic consciousness. At the same time that he was making these cool pencil “head” drawings that give nothing away, he was making “war” images, which betray a deep-seated sense of despair and anxiety. It’s this duality — “everything’s fine” on one hand, and on the other a portrait of mankind at its worst — that makes the atmosphere of surreality so poignant.


Xanti Schawinsky, “Euclidian” (1943), Head Drawings, graphite on paper, 31 1/2 x 23 inches (80 X 58.4 cm)

Do these works portray Allies or fascists? It doesn’t matter. In the world of Xanti Schawinsky, it’s all the same. If the Head Drawings are optimistic about the infinite creative possibilities of man, then the Faces of War are their pessimistic counterbalance. If we are infinitely creative, we are also infinitively destructive.

Xanti Schawinsky: Head Drawings and Faces of War continues until December 14 at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan).


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Francesco Clemente: Inspired By India

September 26, 2014 in Hyperallergic

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The main hall of the Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India show at the Rubin Museum (all photos courtesy the Rubin Museum)

One of things I have always loved about the Rubin Museum is their fearlessness when it comes to exhibition design and color. I’ve visited exhibitions there where the walls are deep vermillion, brilliant saffron, or luminous grey.

IMG-9A view of the Clemente installation with Clemente’s “Hunger” (1990) on the right, 93 1/2 x 96 1/2 in., Philadelphia Museum of Art: Partial and promised gift of Marion Boulton Stroud, 1991(click to enlarge)

The newly opened exhibition of works by Francesco Clemente is perhaps the most stunning example. The walls of the exhibit, entitled Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India, are painted the deepest and most sensual purple imaginable. It’s a bold and spectacular design choice by a confident museum, presenting Clemente’s work in an experiential way. The exhibition is designed so that you can see each of the five massive and iconic Clemente drawings all at once. The spatial design is meant to imply the experience of a Hindu temple. There is the large public space — inhabited by the five huge drawings. There are four smaller meditative “niche” spaces — filled here by sculptures. And finally, the “inner sanctum,” which holds 16 exquisite watercolor pieces and a portfolio of profoundly erotic watercolors, based on the erotic sculptures in Orrisa, India.

Francesco Clemente’s “The Four Corners” (1985), gouache on twelve sheets of handmade Pondicherry paper joined with handwoven cotton strip, 96 1/16 x 94 1/2 in., Private Collection

If this all sounds a bit complicated, well, it is, but it’s a complicated body of work, much of which contains both Buddhist and Hindu iconography, references to the struggles of the Western painter and above all a visual diary of Clemente’s physical and spiritual journeys through a country and culture that resonate deeply within him.

Installation view of the Clemente show

All of the works on paper in this show are splendid, showing Clemente at the height of his skills. They are beautiful, mysterious, erotic, and spiritual. The large pieces haven’t been shown together as a group for almost 15 years, and the impact of these five pieces together is powerful. These works, made in collaboration with local artisans in Madras in the 1980s, are gouache on sheets of handmade paper, bound together by cotton strips to form billboard-sized drawings. The themes and titles — Sun, Moon, Hunger, Two Painters, and Four Corners — reflect Clemente’s identification with many aspects of traditional Indian painting combined with his own contemporary Western angst. The spatial relationships and perspective are uniformly flat, the color slightly lurid, like those in Indian film posters.

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Francesco Clemente, “Two Painters” (1980), gouache on nine sheets of handmade Pondicherry paper joined with handwoven cotton strips, 68 x 94 1/8 in., Collection of Francesco Pellizzi, New York City

I find “Two Painters” to be the most interesting of the group and the most psychologically revealing. Two naked male figures, one obviously more Caucasian than the other (as evidenced by his pink skin tone) poke at each other’s eyes, mouth, and ass, all the while staring back at the viewer with an expression of deceptive calm. East meets West. The artist exists in two cultures, absorbing each through sight, touch, and taste. All of Clemente’s works made in India throughout the years are deeply (no pun intended) interested in orifices. This is a consistent theme. In this particular work I see it as Clemente’s view of how things enter the artists consciousness — color, image, taste go into the various orifices by way of experience. The punch line is that they inevitably exit the artist in a changed form.

The two landscapes in the piece reflect this duality — the dry and barren landscape of the West contrasts with what appears to be an idyllic and lush Eastern land. The East is full of renewal, moisture, and color. I am loath to over analyze these works. Part of the beauty and mystery disappears when the meanings are too tightly defined.

 IMG-25New aluminum sculptures by Francesco Clemente (left to right), “Earth,” “Sun,” “Moon” (all 2014), Courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Next we move into the meditative spaces. The four sculptures, which were commissioned by the Rubin for this exhibition, are a bit more problematic. To my knowledge Clemente has not worked much as a sculptor and the work feels a little undernourished. Each is based on the structure of rickety wooden scaffolding that one sees all over India, although these pieces are fabricated out of aluminum. Each is then topped with a found Indian object. A British Colonial-era trunk, a flag embroidered with bit of Marxist text, a pot, and a mystery box. The pieces are fine, not bad, but not particularly moving. They pale in compassion to the richness of the works on paper.

IMG-20Drawings from Francesco Clemente’s Sixteen Amulets for the Road series (2012–13), Courtesy of Francesco Clemente and Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich

The inner sanctum contains two sets of works that I had never seen before, one a most noteworthy group of 16 watercolors on paper entitled Sixteen Amulets For the Road. Clemente works again with local artisans. This time he is in Delhi and working with themes and imagery from the Mogul Empire. Four themes are painted four times, each with significant changes. The drawings are quite formal, a central image surrounded by various elaborate and intricate borders of repetitive design. At first glance much of this appears purely decorative, but look closely and you will see subtle variations in the patterning. A reminder that this is made by the hand of man, which is fallible and imperfect. All of these drawings are loaded with Buddhist and Hindu iconography, as filtered through a Western sensibility. The repeated image of fisherman’s nets filled with clocks refers to Buddhist teachings — we are captives of time and that is at the root of unhappiness. Ladders that twirl and twist towards the heavens represent the different paths that one can choose towards enlightenment; chains bind man to his earthly desires. The symbols can be seen as obvious, but in Clements’s hands they carry a richness that belies easy interpretation.

Watercolor paintings from Francesco Clemente’s The Black Book series (1989), Courtesy of Alba and Francesco Clemente

And finally The Black Book, 48 watercolors, based on erotic Hindu temple sculptures. These depict couplings and penetration in every and all-imaginable combinations … and then some. Using the fluid nature of watercolor Clemente has portrayed couplings that go beyond sex and transcend to another realm. The headless bodies are totally and completely joined in spiritual and carnal bliss. It’s impossible to tell where one ends and another begins. Thin veils of watercolor crossing over and under each other in shades of pulsing ochre, umber, and deep claret. They are shocking and arousingly beautiful. The sensual and the sexual beget transcendence.

IMG-6Francesco Clemente, “Moon” (1980), gouache on twelve sheets of handmade Pondicherry paper joined with handwoven cotton strips, 96 1/4 x 91 in.The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Alan Wanzenberg in honor of Kynaston McShine, 2012

The strength of this show is that the artistic journey is so precisely mimicked by the design and architecture of the exhibition. It’s a perfectly executed metaphor for Clemente’s own journey. We start with an artist in large format in the public space, self-conscious of his place in the world. We travel into increasingly smaller spaces that depict a journey inward, both spiritual and artistic. The drawings become ever smaller and more intricate. And in the end, the ultimate enlightenment and loss of self is through union with another.

Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India continues thorough February 2, 2015, at The Rubin Museum of Art. http://www.rubinmuseum.org/

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